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The Clark Sisters Are Bringing Us Some Sunshine

The first ladies of gospel share truths, offer testimony and spill tea you didn’t hear from that Lifetime movie.

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If gospel music had a Mount Rushmore, The Clark Sisters would be on it. With songs like “You Brought the Sunshine” and “Is My Living in Vain” in their repertoire, they’ve released 17 albums and garnered a collective three Dove, three Grammy and 14 Stellar awards. Plus — can we get an amen? — they are the highest-selling female gospel group of all time. Even so, their testimony hasn’t been without some tests.

Daughters of renowned gospel musician and choral director Mattie Moss Clark, the backstory of how sisters Jacky, Denise, Elbernita (Twinkie), Dorinda and Karen made it from the streets of Motown to musical stardom was revealed in last year’s biopic, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. With 2.7 million viewers on opening night, it was Lifetime’s highest-rated movie since 2016. Although sister Denise left the group a while ago, the other sisters are still performing as a unit, just as they have since 1966. And two songs from their latest album, The Return (2020), reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Gospel Airplay chart: “Victory” and “His Love,” which featured an unexpected pairing with Snoop Dogg. Clearly, The Clark Sisters aren’t new to the game, they’re true to the game. In this conversation with Leslie Nettleford, eldest sister Jacky Clark-Chisholm and composer extraordinaire Twinkie Clark talk about longevity, legacy and the importance of remaining fashionably fierce.

Q: Sisters From AARP was honored to present you with a Family Legacy Award because you are the epitome of what our CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, calls “Disrupt Aging” — the idea of reinventing what it means to age. So tell us: How do you reinvent yourselves? How do you stay current?

Jacky: The way we do it is through our children and young people … if we don't recreate ourselves and if we don't stay current, then [we] fall aside. So almost every year we recreate how we look, we recreate things that we're going to do.

Twinkie: I'd go along with Jacky, especially the part with the younger people. I think that the Lord has fixed it so that we can pass down [what we do] to the next generation and that, hopefully, they will carry it on for even other generations. [Niece Kierra Sheard and nephew J. Drew Sheard II contributed to their new album.]

Jacky: Show young people that you are listening to them, you are watching them, that you can learn something from them. I'm of a mindset that every day we should be learning something new. Quincy Jones is almost 90 years old; till this day, he still doesn't go to bed without creating every day.

Q: Twinkie, where do you find the inspiration to have written over 250 songs?

Twinkie: Basically, it comes from things that you experienced. Could be a car accident, something like that — how you walked out of it alive — a testimony. Sometimes I'll get my inspiration on the airplane or through the preacher preaching a good sermon, and it just gives me some idea and thoughts to put together.

Q: Jacky, I understand that you also have had a medical career. How did you balance that with a professional music career?

Jacky: I really wanted to be a doctor, but my parents couldn't afford that, so nursing was the next best thing. In the early stages of our career, it was very difficult for me to [be both] a Clark Sister and a nurse, but my mom made it very convenient for me — she would never accept things when she knew I was in class.

I remember she told me one day, "You not going to be no nurse, you don't even like the sight of blood." And then my mother had a stroke. She apologized because she [had] said I couldn't be no nurse. Then she said, "If you hadn't been a nurse, who would take care of me?" Those are things that play a big part in my life.

Q: How do you as sisters resolve your differences?

Jacky: We are close, we talk it through. We might still be mad at each other, but we don't allow that to linger. We talk through it, and once we talk through it, we kind of resolve it and get over it. I think Twinkie and Karen are really more introverted, but with me and Dorinda, it’s totally different. We talk often — Dorinda is chatty Cathy. My mother would never let us fight and argue. She would say, "Now kiss your sister, tell her you're sorry." That was really how we were reared.

Twinkie: Because we're from a Christian home, that kind of made it a little easier. What we were taught is to love each other, no matter what.

Q: What special thing would you like to share with our readers?

Twinkie: I would share that older people should never feel like they have no purpose after they get to a certain age. We can learn a lot from our elders. Remember that you can gain, especially spiritually, at any age.

Jacky: I agree with that. I still work as a nurse, although I'm off during this pandemic time. A lot of nurses who graduated with me have retired because they refuse to learn the technology of today. There are so many things you can do on the computer. Before you would have had to go to the studio to do it all. Now you could be at home, in your nightgown. So if you don't choose to [use] the technology of today, you will fall by the wayside. And then once you fall by the wayside, you feel like people won't be bothered with you.

Q: You talked about being able to record music your nightgown, but when you are out and about, the fashion that we see you in is amazing. Where do those beautiful fashion creations come from?

Jacky: Well, my mother's philosophy was, "If you look good, when it comes time for you to step out on the stage, people won’t be able to talk about nothing; all they [will] want to do is hear what you got to say. They want to hear you sing."

We want [people] to walk away with two things. Number one: Did the presence of the Lord touch your life in any way? And number two: God, they look really good! We work at it. We have a team of people who work with us, who help us make sure that we stay looking good. Also, we're very fashionable, we come from a very fashionable church. You might not like [the way I look] every day, but when we walk in to perform, you’re going to see me look good.

Q: I hear that! Fashion has had a significant impact. But what is the biggest impact that your music ministry has had on the gospel industry?

Twinkie: I think that one of the greatest impacts is that, thanks be to God, the music has been played outside the church. We have had tracks being played in the bars, in clubs. Lately, we've had some secular artists that have really let us know that they've been inspired by us. One is Mary J. Blige. Jay-Z and Beyoncé took one of our songs and sampled it. So I feel that, well thanks to God, we have made a great impact on secular artists and the music being played outside the church.

Jacky: I don't even think Twinkie really realized how she has dominated the world today. Her music is timeless, like when she wrote “Pray for the USA.” Do we need prayer today? Absolutely. Our contribution is being able to sing creatively what Twinkie has put into pencil and paper. But the last thing I want to say is that it's not a job for us, it's a ministry. The ministry is really the best of who we are; ministry first and then singing and performing comes later. But the first part of our life is totally ministry.

Twinkie: Thank God.